How to chase a storm: The cast and creators of Frozen 2 on making powerful art under pressure
Two Oscars, two Grammys, two short films, a Broadway musical, 30 theme park attractions, an ice show, videogames, e-books, backpacks, finger puppets, LEGO sets, lunchboxes, toilet seats, jelly beans, a line of toddler quad all-terrain vehicles, and $1.3 billion at the box office later, you would have to overturn a rock to find an adult who hasn't heard "Let It Go," yet only turn to a neighbor to find a household still caught in the film's flurry of catchy songs, catchphrase snowmen, and trope-bucking princesses. Frozen fever, they called it once, and now both climatologists and cartoonists can see it coming again: With the Nov. 22 release of Frozen 2, the cast and creators of Disney's record-shattering hit are poised to unleash another winter phenomenon. But to no great surprise, they're keeping their cool.
"Was I nervous about doing a second one? Absolutely not," says Kristen Bell, who voices perennially optimistic, fearlessly awkward princess Anna. "If you bake a cake and it's perfect and then you bake a second one with the same ingredients, statistics will tell you that you're gonna have a great cake."
Idina Menzel, whose powerhouse performance as empathetic queen Elsa sent the Broadway star everywhere from the Oscars to the Super Bowl, likens the sequel to "reuniting with your family — with people that you've had this wonderful success with, but people you trust and love and feel like you're in good hands with."
Yet the happy reunion of the Arendelle royal family (which also includes Josh Gad's still-naïve snowman Olaf and Jonathan Groff's still-hot mountaineer Kristoff) didn't materialize out of thin air; the setting has changed, and circumstances with it. "I do find that because so many milestones were hit the first time, I am a little bit more in tune to some of these expectations that are result-oriented, and I don't like that feeling because it's not where we came from the first time," says Menzel. "I knew that if [returning directors] Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee felt it was the right time to do the sequel, they were only going to do it because they weren't coming from any materialistic or commercial place, that they felt there was an important reason to tell this next story and that's why it took so long for them to do it."
That story began with a question the filmmakers heard regularly during Frozen's global tour: How did Elsa get her powers? It was a mystery only the franchise's creators — not the myriad spin-off storybooks cooked up elsewhere within Disney's consumer products arm — could answer on the big screen. "There was a lot [of extra material] out there, and a lot that we were not even aware of," Buck points out. "So we couldn't really look at any of it as part of the continuation of this story. The first movie was our real guide into the second one."
The sequel picks up roughly six years after the first film, with a tranquil autumn in Arendelle suddenly threatened by an unexplained burst of elemental magic tied to Elsa's past (as well as four chilling notes from a classically trained incorporeal voice). Elsa and Anna's subsequent journey to find answers in an enchanted forest is arguably darker than Frozen, scarier than Frozen, and deals more directly in life-or-death stakes than Frozen did — yet Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, says those tonal traits are all distinctions of, not deviations from, the Frozen franchise DNA.
"If you put them side by side, tonally they're actually very similar — Frozen 1 gets pretty dark with a man trying to murder both girls, you know?" Lee says with a laugh. Nevertheless, the trio of Lee, Buck, and returning producer Peter Del Vecho faced a challenge in evolving the narrative while also essentially liberating it from its own popularity. "One thing that did concern us was, because of the success of the little girls in Elsa dresses all showing up to the party, there was a worry that people might forget what that ride of Frozen actually was, in terms of it being a big, epic, more sophisticated story," says Lee. "We needed to remind people it was a film for all ages; it wasn't just 'the dress' or 'the magic.' So we had to make sure for the second film that we didn't age it down, but we only kept growing and maturing."
Things have grown behind the scenes, too. In addition to taking on an extensive new role as chief creative officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios following John Lasseter's 2017 exit, Lee has seen her own imagination for Frozen's potential grow well beyond the humble measure of success she pursued while making the first film: not disappointing the crew of 2010's Tangled. "In very practical terms, because Tangled was such a fantastic film and the people who worked on Tangled really understood musicals, I just remember thinking, 'I hope they feel we're adding to the canon respectfully,'" she recalls. "I remember just wanting to build off that. I didn't want to be an embarrassment. I wanted Tangled to say 'welcome' and for people to feel like Frozen belonged. In terms of how high did my head go, it was really just that high."
So when Frozen upended just about every expectation Lee, Buck, or even studio leadership might have had, the sequel challenged the directors to recapture that mindset of unburdened optimism. Such a creative exercise is much easier said than done. "I think people would think that because we know the characters, it should be easier, but I think sequels are harder," Lee says. "Also, we're trying to do something that defies the concept of the sequel, that is an expansion and evolution. And thematically, we wanted to keep getting more mysterious, so it actually put us into a lot of uncharted territory on this one."
Heading into the relative unknown, all the directors could do is double down on what they did know: more comic relief from snowman Olaf, more depth to the vital Anna-Elsa relationship, and much, much more music. Bolstered by a shoo-in Oscar win for "Let It Go" at the 2013 Academy Awards, the soundtrack to the first Frozen spent 13 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart and became the second-best-selling album of 2014. Expectations are thus perhaps at their highest in regard to the music here, with the sequel's deluxe soundtrack boasting 46 tracks, including seven new tunes from songwriting spouses Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez and three songs which get a mainstream assist with covers by high-profile artists (Kacey Musgraves, Panic! At the Disco, and Weezer). And for the real musical-theater fans, Elsa's two huge anthems accompany the long-awaited proper use of Broadway star Groff's singing voice for an '80s-inspired tune that brings down the house halfway through the film.
"We all got on board early with the idea of this being kind of the second act of a Broadway musical, where we could go deeper, we could go richer, we could go more emotional with the songs," says Buck. "That was a big win, and we freed ourselves up where we're not starting over with these characters. But we did not try to get another 'Let It Go.' We realized that that was lightning in a bottle. It's a fantastic song, but we wanted this movie to find its own songs and find its own voice."
An early epiphany about Anna and Elsa's voices also helped fundamentally reframe the way the directors thought about their central characters. During the development phase, the sequel's story team cracked a concept about Anna and Elsa that actually split them into two disparate narrative archetypes: Anna, with her optimistic tilt and love-conquers-all dogma, was a classic fairy-tale character through and through; Elsa, with tragic supernatural power and the heavy burden of fate on her shoulders, was a character borne of myth.
"That epiphany was very freeing because we were starting to paint Elsa a little bit too much like Anna until we came upon this idea," says Buck. The Lopezes also relished the epiphany, adds Lee: "When we pitched it to Bobby and Kristen, Bobby in particular was like, 'Oh my God, now I know how Elsa sings and what her type of song is and why she's this and that,' and the same with Anna. It unlocked the same thing for them, which was the best scenario. All of the songs fit wonderfully in the Frozen world, but they're surprising and show the growth of the characters, and I think that's the most rewarding thing. They don't feel like you just found a new catchy version of X or a new version of Y. We found the truth of where they're going."
And that's the eye of the storm, perhaps, the quiet center of why Frozen has lingered so long in pop culture and why it stands to swell again: It's a story that champions, without prejudice, the importance of personal discovery and the value of waiting for it. It's a universal and unceasing kind of rejoicing, and it doesn't waver, no matter whether that unleashed individuality belongs to an anxious princess, a belting tween, or actresses becoming fuller versions of themselves in both.
Bell has been vocal for several years about her cherished relationship to the core of idiosyncratic Anna. "I was excited to have this job because I love animation and it's an honor to play a Disney character, but there was something otherworldly about my connection with Anna from day one," she says, beaming. "I felt with such clarity the things that I wanted to see in her. I wanted to play a Disney princess that I needed to see when I was 11 years old, someone who was goofy and quirky and stumbled over her words, who was way too optimistic, perhaps a little naïve, who believes in and lived for the people around her but was also clumsy and didn't have great posture. And I was shocked at how clear that vision was to me, and at the level of investment where she felt like my baby."
And Menzel, who has since turned Frozen into a staple of her international concerts for more than half a decade, has grown no less susceptible to the emotions that Elsa can inspire. "When people refer to you as a role model, with that comes great responsibility, and it happened to me with Elphaba from Wicked as well," she shares. "Those characters actually help me be a better human being. What happens is there's quite a pressure to practice what you preach, and those characters or themes or stories are often kicking my ass in gear on the days where I don't feel like getting out of bed. So Elsa's this amazing little reminder to me that is reinforced every time I go into the studio to work on her or every time I sing a song of hers, to really harness my own power. No matter how old we are as women, to stay in touch with that and understand what makes us unique and extraordinary in the world, and to never apologize for that."
For the second time in forever, let the reign begin.
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